Big Mac vs Dead Hippie: On junk science and fine wine

Can you tell theID-100261094 difference between a £2.59 Mcdonald’s Big Mac and the £8.50 Dead Hippie burger from London’s MEAT liqour, purveyor of fine but pricey burgers?

Of course you could. One is anaemic and flat in flavour, clearly the product of mass production and cheap ingredients. The other is literally dripping in flavour, is handmade and cooked to order, and most important of all, loaded with expensive ingredients.

Few would dispute the vast differences between these burgers. So why is the opposite true when it comes to wine? The flow of news stories telling us that seasoned wine experts, from Masters of Wine and some not, who are unable to point out the cheap, £4 wine out of a group containing some of the world’s most expensive wines is practically interminable. But recently it seems that the volume of these articles has been on the increase — helped along the way, no doubt, by publications like the Daily Mail.

If you thought it was safe to progress through the summer without encountering a news article that dismissed wine tasting and wine critics as being entirely useless, well you were wrong.

Back in July the Mail, our favourite sensationalist newspaper and purveyor of mindless twaddle designed only to stoke rage among anyone remotely reasonable in character, proclaimed that its taste test of cheap wines from Lidl and expensive wines from top Bordeaux chateaux resulted in ‘hilarious’ results.

The article featured Oz Clarke, the expert, and two people who, shall we say, are more likely wine ‘experts’ insofar as they are expert at drinking it.

The only thing hilarious about the article, from what I could surmise, was that Oz Clarke pretty much nailed the entire tasting and yet the Daily Mail still tried to convince its readers that no one could ever tell the difference between a £4.99 Aldi Bordeaux and a £514 bottle of Chateau Haut Brion. Except Oz Clarke for the fact that Oz Clarke clearly could and in fact did.

This is a topic that gets more than its fair share of coverage, both in the anti-wine snob national press and among snooty bloggers like me. Politics has the debates over taxes and the welfare state; the wine world has the debates over natural wines and whether or not critics can do the one thing they have spent their careers doing: picking out the good ones from the bad.

Newspapers love a good headline. The Daily Mail knows this better than anyone, but it isn’t alone. The New York Times has been known to weigh in on the debate. So too the Guardian, which more often than not prefers to make absolute declarations in order to drive more traffic to its site more than it probably cares about the topic itself.

Then there is one of my favourite media outlets: NPR. It could, just like the others, spice up its stories to more sensational levels to drive traffic. But this is the house of reason and analysis we’re talking about. Sensationalism doesn’t  register in a radio network where the newsreaders sound as though they are whispering the news to you while sitting in a wing back chair by a roaring fire.

NPR also has a reputation for analysing a topic at a level much deeper than most other media outlets, so it came as no surprise that their discussion about the validity of wine tasting (Is wine-tasting junk science?) briefly veers into discussions philosophy rather than the mechanics of comparing a £5 bottle of wine with one worth £500.

The article also sums up wine tasting in a much more eloquent manner than my burger analogy above:

If you know English, then you are expert not only at discriminating significant English sounds, but you also spontaneously and reliably appreciate their meaning. Someone with no acquaintance with English can’t do any of this, even though his or her sensory organs may be in fine working order.
— Alva Noë, NPR, 8 August 2014

So is wine tasting junk science? The question I ask is, who ever said it was a science? I think the Daily Mail article provided us with all the conclusions that we need, even if it was unintentional.

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Reviewed: Aglianico del Vulture and GSM two ways

It came as a shock, but someone recently told me I should review more wine and spend less time writing about the usual nonsense that blackens these pages. Under normal circumstances I would scoff at a suggestion like this, but then a clutch of sample bottles turned up at my doorstep and I realised I might have to do some actual work for a change.

In entirely unrelated news,  this past weekend I found myself entangled in one of those weird exchanges on a friend’s Facebook status update where a preference for wine was being determined through nationalism. I expect this with sports and even the way words are spelled (aluminum vs aluminium being a typical example), but wine?

The only thing I am truly nationalistic about is maple syrup and hockey. And even then, maybe only the maple syrup (if it’s made in Vermont, it isn’t allowed in my house). This is for good reason. Only recently has Canadian wine become something to be proud about, so it will take us some time to develop deep-seated nationalistic feelings towards it.

So, anyway, the main thing that I learned from this experience was that, for some people, there is only one wine worth drinking. The mere thought of this frightened me. What do we do if phylloxera were to decimate all of France’s vines again? If global warming renders California too hot for grapes? If invasive species overtake Australia? Better to have a taste for all of the world’s wines, I should think.

With that in mind, the following is a themeless and unstructured round-up of several wines that I’ve been tasting – and actually enjoying – lately.

More from the Berry Bros case
As I discussed in the spring, Berry Bros offered me a short trial of their new wine club and since then I have been putting their selection to the test. One such test was to including one that faced the most challenging crowd of all at the regular 7WordWineReview dinner. That wine, a St Hubert’s Pinot Noir Yarra Valley 2011, earned high praise. So far, so good.

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Yarra Valley pinot is a bit too easy though. So here we have something from a region of Italy that most wine drinkers probably don’t know very well: Basilicata. This region borders Puglia and is in the centre of the instep of the boot of Italy. The wine, made from the aglianico grape and known as Aglianico del Vulture, is deep in colour and backed up by tannins, acidity and ample dark cherry fruit to match.

This Musto Carmelitano Serra del Prete Aglianico del Vulture 2011 doesn’t come cheaply, but you would be hard pressed to find this kind of quality at a lower price. This isn’t just some over-baked red wine from broiling hot southern Italy. It is deep and savoury, balanced with tannin and acidity, and surprisingly fresh with that dose of minerality that people talk about so much these days.

Out of the Penfolds bin
And now, to Australia. There is something about Australian wines that I always find distinctive. To call it ‘sterile’ would be insulting. What I mean to say is that there is a preciseness about them that makes them razor-sharp, fresh and clean. There is often a touch of eucalyptus or mint in there that adds to this effect.

20140715-071004-25804582.jpgThis wine, a Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2012, is a long way removed from those lesser Penfolds wines you find in the supermarket. It is approachable now, but it gives clues of its ageworthiness. It is precise, finely balanced in acidity, tannin and fruit, but is also deep and bold without having any flabby characteristics.

This is one of those GSM wines (grenache, shiraz/syrah, mourvedre/mataro) that have become popular not only in Australia but other realms that offer ideal growing conditions for Rhone-style wines. I am not entirely sure of all the major retailers of this wine, but you can buy this one from Frazier’s Wine Merchants for £22.50.

This is a good wine that is worth seeking out if you want something Australian that aspires to deliver more than those Aussie shirazes and Rhone blends on supermarket shelves.

GSM the old world way
Let’s say you just want to drink an old world version of this wine. Surely the whole point of jumping on the GSM bandwagon is to select something genuine, right? Something cheap, something rustic, something from, say, the Rhone itself? Grenache, syrah and mourverdre are just three of 19 grapes found in the southern Rhone, so there is the potential for a lot of variety here, but the reality is that they tend to most commonly appear in wines from this region.

I could rattle of dozens of Rhone wines worth trying. Coudoulet de Beaucastel, while still not cheap at about £17, is one of the best. Then there are the old standby volume-made wines: Guigal Cotes du Rhone Villages and M. Chapoutier Cotes due Rhone Belleruche, each for around £11-£12.

As always, I recommend asking your local wine merchant to suggest a bottle. They probably have a great one on the shelf that was made in limited quantities by small producers.

20140715-071004-25804421.jpgWe aren’t limited to just the Rhone, here. There are plenty corners of the south of France that get ignored because Rhone shouts the loudest. When thinking of GSM, we probably don’t drink enough wine from Saint-Chinian. This bottle, a Terrasses de Balaussan Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2010 that I bought for £12.49, was one of those wines I brought along to a 7WordWineReview dinner hoping for the best.

Unusually for my recent contributions to these dinners, this one wasn’t rubbish. Sometimes, the wines you buy are duds. but this one earned praise. It expresses the warmth of the south of France, the garrigue, the stones, the sun and the dark fruits.

This is just an honestly good wine that offers genuinely enjoyable drinking for the price.

Where is this Saint-Chinian place then? Well, it’s between Minervois and Faugeres. Has that confused you yet? Look on a map of France, find the border with Spain on the Mediterranean and look for a city called Beziers. It’s about 40 km inland from there.

The Rhone isn’t the only part of southern France that does wine well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosé, merlot and something from the Balkans: Better than you think

This post would have been a perfect round-up of three wines from countries competing in the FIFA World Cup were it not for the fact Bulgaria isn’t even at the event. This is what happens when you don’t actually pay attention to the sport.

So, now that I’ve got the pointless and frankly unrelated mention of the World Cup out of the way, let’s talk about wine.

Let’s start with merlot. It can divide a room. Few grape varieties find themselves on the receiving end of as much revile and hatred as merlot does.

Blame Rex Pickett Alexander Payne. Few people could be considered more responsible for the derision aimed at this grape than the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Sideways. While most of the story was centred on the wonder of pinot noir, merlot was the whipping boy. Pinot: lithe and lovely; merlot: fat and flabby.

Anyone who has sampled a merlot from California’s bad old days will understand. Overbaked, over-extracted, over-oaked and overdone – not much about it was charming. So too the chardonnays.

photo 3This is a real shame because there is no sane reason to be opposed to merlot in the same way there is no sane reason for anyone to have luposlipaphobia.

All of this rushed through my mind when I was drinking a Bulgarian merlot that I found on a shelf at Marks & Spencer. Peach Garden Merlot 2012 didn’t fill me with many expectations; Merlot fromBulgaria excites me about as much as chardonnay from California’s Central Valley.

I’m not going to say this wine knocked my socks off. It was basic, lacking in complexity and not memorable. But, for around £7, you can’t expect too much either.

A few reviews online castigate it for lacking fruit, for being thin, for being the embodiment of all those negative qualities that come with cheap merlot. But I am going to stand up and say that, for a simple, cheap wine, it isn’t that bad. It’s correct to the merlot style. It’s medium-bodied and basic, but it has the red fruit you would expect and an easy-drinking style. If you want complexity, spend more money. If you want a perfectly serviceable wine that you can pour into your gravy and sip on the sly, this one will do.

photo 1And so this brings me to another wine that gets a bad press. Rosé. As was written in these pages some time ago, rosé is one of those wines that can divide a room. This is particularly true among those people whose only experience with the wine includes the sickly sweet Blossom Hill and Echo Falls offerings, it can attract leers.

But this is summer and sometimes we not only want a crisp, cold drink, but we want something that says F-U-N.

And so rosé.

In fact: I love rosé.

Recently I was sent a sample bottle of Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc 2013. I drank it over two warm evenings.

Many rosés from the south of France are brimming with the pleasant aroma of strawberries and cream with a dry palate that often pairs well with seafood. This one delivers exactly this, although it seems less full-on with the red berry notes than other wines of its type. This one is particularly crisp and a little bit more like a typical white wine, complete with a spritz and a good deal of minerality. For a wine in the region of £8 to £10, this is well worth a look, although it doesn’t seem widely available in the UK just yet.

photo 5Now, moving back to the Balkans.

Croatia might be best known at the moment for its football team’s penchant for nudity, but perhaps it should be better known for its wine.

When I was a teenager, I knew Croatia as a war-torn land that didn’t seem to be a part of the world where anyone would want to do much of anything. I was only a teenager, after all, and the Balkan war was in full swing.

But today, it does wine. It does wine quite well in fact. I could have chosen to feature a wine from any number of merchants, but my own laziness has brought me back to Marks & Spencer, thanks in part to  spate of shopping sprees there on recent lunch breaks.

We have here a bottle of M&S Golden Valley Grasevina 2012. Grasevina is, apparently, the most widely planted white grape in Croatia and offers up fresh, intense flavours backed up by a good dose of fruit and just the right amount of acidity. There is plenty of citrus and tropical fruit here, and this would be good for shellfish. Definitely worth seeking out if your usual choice for wine is a sauvignon blanc or Bourgogne blanc. And I hear their football team is better than Bulgaria’s.

 

 

 

Domaine Marie Faugeres vs The Real Thing

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Back in the 1990s, one of Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans was to declare that it was ‘the real thing’. This was, of course, intended as a way for Coke to differentiate itself from the imitators out there, something that it has been doing since the late 19th century.

The words never really had much meaning for me. It could have been because I was only 11 at the time. It could also have been because I paid more attention to Cindy Crawford, who adorned their television commercials and billboards at the time. The phrase ‘the real thing‘ was packed full of as much meaning as Fox News’s claim to being ‘fair and balanced’.

What exactly is ‘the real thing’ anyway? Apart from being a tautology, it is also a pointless declaration. Not long ago I discussed the concept of real and natural wine, so I won’t drone on about that again. But what I will do is discuss those times you get the real thing and those times when you get an imposter.

We have all had those moment of success, when that bottle you bought for its striking label it delivered everything you wanted and more.

Perfection.

And then…well then there are the times you found disappointment at the bottom of a rough-and-ready jug wine: something with the consistency of diluted Ribena with a vague flavouring of alcohol.

For instance, Faugeres. This is a small appellation within the Languedoc,  inland of Beziers on the French Mediterranean coast. The production here is mostly red wine from the carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvedre and syrah grapes, although white wines make up about a fifth of the annual output.

This is a young appellation, having been created in 1982, but like much of the South of France, quality levels are high and consistent these days. Two of my favourite Languedoc wines, Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010 and Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011, both come from Faugeres, selling at £19.50 and £14.50 respectively.

Together they meet all of those expectations that form when opening a bottle of wine: fragrant, rich, earthy, complex and hedonistic.

So to be fair to Domaine Marie Faugeres 2012, it was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. A mere supermarket wine selling for £8.49 at Waitrose could not be expected to be the real thing.

It is lighter in body than the others, big on fruit with a scattering of spices and an easy-drinking style. So what’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t quite tick all of the boxes. That it is another affordable wine that falls short of expectations. That I am sure siphoning the essence from the tank of a clapped out Citroen would yield a similar result.

This is one of those wines that reminds you why you should have spent more. It is why people buy a Tag Heuer watch rather than a Timex. One is weighty and expresses quality; the other is light, flimsy and made for mass market consumption.

If you goal is to achieve that slight buzz that only three glasses of wine can produce, Domaine Marie does it just as well as the others. But a fine wine experience it is not.

It appears that in Faugeres, if you want the real thing, you need to spend real money.

 

 

 

Oranges and Turkeys: If the underpants don’t excite you, the wines will

Looking back at a year’s worth of credit receipts, it seems I really only buy underpants, socks and the odd bottle of wine from Marks & Spencer. I blame this on where I work.

Anyone who has worked in the City of London can attest that there is a dearth of decent wine retailers. Apart from Uncorked up at Bishopsgate, Amathus at Leadenhall Market  and The Wine Library at Tower Hill, there are not many other places you can go for a browse on your lunch break or even after work.

If it’s a wine bar you want, there are plenty. El Vino. Planet of the Grapes. 28-50. The list is long and varied before even mentioning the more corporate offerings. But a mere scattering of wine shops? You can find yourself scanning the same shelves over and over and over again. A man can return to the same merchant only so often.

It turns out some of the most daring wine offerings on the high street are being sold at what is probably one of the most traditional and staid British retailers: Marks & Spencer.

I haven’t exactly discovered something new. We’ve been reading about the wine selection at M&S for quite some time. As far back as 2008, Tim Atkin was telling us how much M&S wine had improved, while also revealing his choice when it comes to underpants (unlike me, he does not buy his pants from M&S).

For a big retailer, the wine options are rather bold. During a single visit to M&S, I counted wines from Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Georgia, Lebanon and Turkey. These are daring offerings considering that the most popular wine brands in the UK include the likes of Blossom Hill, Hardy’s, Echo Falls and Gallo.

I have not drunk any of these big brand wines in quite some time, but something tells me they are nothing at all like a malagousia from Greece, a okuzgozu from Turkey or even a much more conservative Turkish blend of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. This could be because the average M&S shopper is not the same as the average person who buys their wine from their local off licence.

IMAG0927-1Reading that last line, it occurs to me that I have become one of them, a person who seeks out obscure wines and grape varieties and then blogs about them in a fury. It appears I am behind the curve on this one. And I am definitely a long way off making it into the Wine Century Club. I would have to keep track of all the grapes I am trying, for a start.

Of course, M&S isn’t the only retailer offering wines made from the less familiar end of the grape spectrum. There are too many good merchants to name, although I will make special mention of Red Squirrel Wine for carving a niche out of selling wines that are out of the ordinary.

So. Back to M&S. On a recent trip during a rather bored lunch hour, I noticed this Georgian wine, Tbilvino Qvevris 2011. An orange wine, this wine is made by fermenting the grape juice in contact with the skins, resulting in textured, tannic white that has a pale orange colour and a slightly nutty, almost sherry-like characteristic.

In a Daily Mail article about this very wine, people who posted comments on the article said they were disappointed to learn that the wine wasn’t actually made with oranges or that the wine’s actual colour wasn’t the orange they had expected.

IMAG0929I paused after reading this and wondered why people bother to even write comments under these articles. And then I wondered why I was reading about wine in the Daily Mail in the first place.

At the same time I also bought this Greek wine, Thymiopoulos Xinomavro 2011. Made  from the xinomavro grape, this wine is said to be comparable to a fine Italian red. Is it true? I will find out soon and report back.

A few years ago, Greek wine would have been a no-go for most people. Their white wines might have been acceptable, but a red wine? Could it really be palatable? But these days, Greek wine is beginning to hit its stride. From assyrtiko to malagousia and naoussa, the country that for many was known for retsina and little else is beginning to turn heads.

M&S isn’t the only place to find wines like this. Online retailers, national merchants and local merchants have boosted their ranges to include something out of the ordinary. Go to your local independent merchant and give them your support.

 

 

 

 

 

Wine clubs: The good and the ordinary

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Recently I was asked if I would be interested in trying out a new wine club. They would send me a mixed case of wine and I could provide my most honest opinions. Two thoughts raced through my mind at that very moment.

The first thought centred on my concern about the ethical ramifications of receiving the case (and yes, full disclosure, I accepted the case). The second thought was that I was about to experience the inevitable mishaps of Britain’s couriers, who seem to make it their business to infuriate any person who doesn’t lay about at home all day during the working week.

Of course, the courier’s riposte to that is, what did you think was going to happen when you asked something to be delivered to a place where you had no intention of being during working hours? Quite. Of course, I could have provided my office address. But the whole point of having delivered is the delivery itself. If I wanted to carry bottles of wine home from my office, I might as well walk to the shop and buy them off the shelf.

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It took about a week from start to finish to cross the threshold of my home, but finally I was in possession of this case of wine. Specifically, a case of wine from Berry Bros & Rudd, the sort of wine merchant that operates out of a shop that looks like it belongs in the 17th century because it is from the 17th century.

I have dabbled with wine clubs and their variants in the past. There was the time I signed up for The Sunday Times Wine Club because a friend of mine bought from there and it seemed like the thing to do. Apart from receiving a welcome pack in the post, it has lain dormant ever since.

Then I had one of those Wine Bank accounts at Virgin Wines because the prospect of being given 25 per cent off whatever I bought – even those bottles of Dom Perignon – was enticing at the time. But other than those bottles of Dom Perignon (which were truly cheap after the discount) and one or two gems here and there, I found that their portfolio wasn’t for me.

So here I am today. Unlike the cheap and cheerful wines and stark tasting notes supplied by the likes of Virgin Wines, this Berry Bros offering is clearly aiming for something more. Along with the 12 bottles comes a membership pack in the form of a ring binder complete with articles, a who’s who on grapes and regions, as well as a guide to tasting, storing and cooking with wine.

Being a fairly straightforward person who self-identifies as a working-class Canadian, I’ve never been one for anything stuffy or ornate. But when it comes to wine (and bicycles), I can’t help but be absorbed by the culture. I can debate terroir with the best of them.

Most wine clubs want to foist a generic introductory case upon its members, often for less than £10 per bottle, which means most of what you get is at the more ordinary end of the spectrum. Think Sunday Times, Virgin Wines, Laithwaite’s, Naked Wines, et al. The only way you can avoid this is by going straight to your local wine merchant and asking them if they have a wine club of their own. You will pay slightly more for it – the cost of one steak dinner a month – but at least it will be good.

So, how is the wine? The case came with two bottles each of: a South African chenin blanc, a Chianti Classico, a red Rully, a Maconnais, a Ribero del Duero and a Mosel riesling. Not a bad selection, but it ought to be for £180 for each delivery.

I can offer my opinion for only one of the bottles so far, a Signal Cannon Chenin Blanc 2011. With a retail price of £12.50 (or £11.25 per bottle when buying by the case), this is more than your average UK wine drinker would spend on a bottle of white wine, but then again, the average Berry Bros customer spends more than your average UK wine drinker.

As wine goes, this is what South African chenin blanc is all about. Dry but with good weight in the mouth, plenty of tropical fruits and enough acidity to hold it all together. This isn’t like chenin blanc from Vouvray, but it isn’t meant to be either.

The only problem is the price. This bottle would run at a slightly lower price at any other retailer (it is selling for £7.95 at Davy’s), but we must accept that, in some cases, there is a premium to be paid when buying from Berry Bros (that Mayfair address can’t be cheap). And then we have to consider that Berry Bros customers accept a certain quality level at all times, even when understated.

Case in point: while Waitrose sells its Good Ordinary Claret for £4.99, the Berry Bros version runs at £9. If you’re a Berry Bros customer, there is good and ordinary and then there is good and ordinary.